July 11, 2013
Santa Fe, NM
October 23rd is a day of some significance. According to Bishop James Ussher, the seventeenth century Irish protestant who calculated the Biblical age of the earth, it is the day of creation.
In 1650, Ussher published “The Annals of the Old Testament” in which he documents his calculations for the exact date of creation. Using the Old and New Testaments, and other more ancient or obscure texts, Ussher added the years of every generation from Adam to 1650. This was, as you might imagine, a complicated and demanding task. First Ussher had to find and identify each generation, and then he had to calculate the years contained in that generation. And not all generations were equal. Adam, according to The Bible, was 130 years old before he had his first child. Eve, always under-documented in Genesis, was also 130 years old, minus however long it took Adam to name the animals and get lonely. Having just 23 ribs, by the way, seems not to have prevented Adam from living a long and fruitful life. According to The Bible he lived another 800 years after Seth was born, producing a raft of children after the fabled Cain and Able. He finally gave up the ghost at 930. The Bible is mute on how long Eve lived, but since no wife after Eve is ever mentioned in The Bible, presumably she had children for at least a few hundred more years. Adamʼs first wife, by the way, Lilith, who was created from the same dust as Adam, didnʼt work out. When Adam demanded that she act more wifely, which is to say, more subservient, she walked-out. That the very first marriage in all of human history ended in divorce after less than a day is a somewhat troubling thought – even by todayʼs standards (People Magazine reports that Kim Kardashianʼs marriage lasted 71 days longer than Godʼs very first husband and wife). However, Lilithʼs quick departure from the Garden of Eden did not prevent God from trying again. A day and a night later Adam had a new wife. The Bible tells us that Adam fell asleep and when he awoke Eve was sleeping beside him. “I have no idea who this woman is or how she got here,” Adam said, a statement repeated many times by many men throughout human history. Eve, being actually made from Adamʼs rib, and so by definition in debt to Adam for her very existence, seems to have been sufficiently wifely. They did, after all, populate the earth. But I digress – back to Bishop Ussher.
In the first sentence of the first paragraph of “The Annals of the Old Testament” Bishop Ussher wrote that creation began on October 23, 4004 BC. So how did Ussher know it was October 23rd? Having arrived at the year, Ussher reasoned that, because Eve couldnʼt resist the apple, it must have been in the fall, when apples are ripe. And because God would, no doubt, begin creation at a moment of some celestial significance, He must have chosen the autumnal equinox to start the Universal clock. Keeping in mind that God created for six days and then rested on the seventh, a Sunday, God must have started work on the world on a Monday – the first day of the week of the first week. A few years of calculations later, Ussher had determined that the Monday closest to the autumnal equinox in the year 4004 BC was October 23rd.
Charles Darwin, on the other hand, used observation more than calculation. In fact, Darwinʼs real genius was observation. Seeing a vine twisted around a branch, he wondered why some vines on a plant twisted to the left and some twisted to the right. So he sat and watched the vine grow. Day after day. And discovered – no, observed – that vines twist both directions, right, left, and then right again until they find a branch to follow. Then they twist around the branch in whatever direction they were twisting when they first came in contact with the branch. It was this obsession for observation that led him, after years of thought, to the principals of evolution.
That the universe is only 6016 years old would seem to be a rather quaint relic of 17th century Europe, except that it is actually the basis for the fundamentalist Christian belief in ʻyoung earthʻ creationism. While no one would deny anyoneʼs right to believe whatever they want, whether itʼs creationism, a blue cheese moon, or winning the lottery. But believing is one thing.Teaching as fact in public schools is something else. And creationism is, more and more, being shoved into American public school classrooms as a valid scientific counter to the theory of evolution that Charles Darwin described in “The Origin of Species.”
Ussherʼs accounting of the date of creation almost immediately began receiving church sanction. In 1701, it was officially adopted by the Church of England. It was later included in the King James Version of The Bible. Today itʼs taught as fact in churches and classroom across the country.
Of course, inculcating children with superstition and mythology is not a new development in human history. In fact one of the many ironies of Bishop Usherʼs calculations is that in the twenty years it took him to write “The Annals of the Old Testament” he consulted many manuscripts that were based on stories older than the age he finally gave to all of creation. Charles Pellegrino, writing in “Unearthing Atlantis,” writes about stores creationists believe to be original to the Bible – ʻverbum deiʼ – that in fact have their origins in Sumerian, Babylonian, or other more ancient cultures (the flood, for example). Ussher, by the way, was known to complain during his long career in the Anglo-Irish Church, about the Roman Catholics and their penchant for superstition, mythology and invention. (But I digress again.)
A Gallup poll conducted this year found that 46% of adult Americans believed in Creationism and reject the scientific evidence for Darwinian evolution.
On its web page, the Creation Museum, in Petersburg, Kentucky, advertises, “…amazing scientific and Biblical answers for the world we live in today.”. Amazing – no doubt. Scientific – hardly. Take the dinosaur problem. The creationist view is that dinosaurs were created the same week as Adam and Eve (and Lilith), but didnʼt make it onto Noahʼs Ark and so perished from the earth. Makes sense when you think about it. With two of every animal, large and small, from every continent, each in its present form, along with two of every kind of reptile, insect, land bound bird, and the Noah family, all crammed onto one ark, somebody was going to get left behind.
At the Creation Museum, a visitor can walk through a “Pre-flood” exhibit which shows humans and dinosaurs living peacefully together, before the rain began falling. Children can even see exhibits where archeologists – real “scientists” – dig for pre-flood dinosaur bones (all less than 6 thousand years old, of course).
￼Museums? Public school science classes? Creationists – who are, remember, almost half of the adult American public – sit on school boards and get elected to Congress (“Suppose you were an idiot. Suppose you were a member of congress. Ah, but I repeat myself.” – Mark Twain) Two states now have laws on the books that permit (some would say ʻencourageʼ) teachers to deny the validity of Darwinian evolution while ʻteachingʼ Bishop Ussherʼs ʻyoung earthʼ creationism as a valid scientific principle.
In a recent worldwide science test, 12th graders in the United States ranked 16th, behind every country in Europe, Japan, China, The Czech Republic, and Russia. We did, however, out-perform Lithuania. When the international science test questions are specifically about evolution and the earth sciences, American Students ranked even lower. How are we to compete in global markets when we permit the religious beliefs of 46% of the population to determine what is science and what is not? We wonʼt. How can we expect a voting citizenry to make good choices at the ballot box when that citizenry is willing to let religious mythology, and only religious mythology, educate and inform their children? We canʼt.
The answer is simple, schools need to teach science.
Itʼs worth mentioning that Bishop Ussherʼs calculations for the age of the earth were used with some theatricality by Clarence Darrow during the 1925 Scopes Trial in Dayton Tennessee. Scopes, as you remember, was charged with violating the Butler Act, a Tennessee law that criminalized the teaching of evolution. Darrow brought up Bishop Ussher and asked the lawyer for the prosecution, William Jennings Bryan, if he agreed with Ussherʼs determination of the age of the earth. Bryan responded that he didnʼt much think about it. Darrow asked why not. Hereʼs William Jennings Bryanʼs somewhat Rumsfeld-esque reply:
WJ Bryan: “I do not think about the things I do not think about.”
Darrow: “Do you think about the things you do think about?”
WJ Bryan: “Well, sometimes.”
Clearly Bryan didnʼt really have his heart in it. And how could he? Although Darrow frequently got the upper hand, Bryan prevailed with the jury and Scopes was found guilty. People believe what they want to believe. Scopes was fined $100.00, which was paid by Darrow and other supporters, and he retreated from the headlines. Darrow summed up the trial with these words: “You know, some of us might get the facts and still be ignorant.” Shouldnʼt we at least be teaching our children the facts?
Finally, if you want to go to the Creation Museum, itʼs not exactly cheap. An adult ticket costs $29.95. But it might just be worth it, because youʼll get to see Fiberglass Adam and Fiberglass Eve skinny-dipping in a fiberglass lake (presumably, visitors to the Creation Museum have never actually seen anyone skinny-dipping. And thinking again about Adam and Eve… I find myself wishing that Eve had given a bite of the apple to at least just one other species. It seems grossly unfair that only humans, of all the species created 6016 years ago, including dinosaurs, had to wear fig leaf underwear.)
School groups, especially science classes, receive a discount at the Creation Museum.
“We need a wiser and perhaps more mythical concept of animals… They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travails of the earth.”
In April and May of 2012 the Sacramento Bee (one of a handful of newspapers in America that still employs true investigative journalism) ran a series of three articles by Tom Knudson (Aril 29th and 30th, May 6th) about the Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services. I’ve been haunted by the articles since I read them.
Wildlife Services is a highly secretive agency within the Department of Agriculture. Most Americans have never even heard of it, although the agency is well known to many ranchers and farmers, especially in the west. Wildlife Services provides one service: it kills wildlife. Every year Wildlife Services spends about thirty million dollars shooting, poisoning, and trapping hundreds of thousands of wild birds and mammals, animals that are – or are presumed to be – damaging the crops and livestock of American farmers and ranchers. Once called Animal Damage Control, the agency was re-branded Wildlife Services in 1995, in an attempt to obfuscate its real mission of destroying wild animals.
In the five year period from 2006 and 2011, more than a million American birds and animals were killed by this Department of Agriculture agency.
First the mammals: In this same period, at least 560,000 “target” mammals were killed, most of them coyotes. “Target” mammals are the ones they intend to kill. That’s 256 animals killed a day, every day, for five years. Shot from helicopters and airplanes, caught in leg-hold traps, strangled by neck snares, or poisoned.
Shameful and disgusting as this wholesale slaughter is, it’s not actually effective in protecting livestock. First, because where coyotes have been wiped-out the rodent populations explode, providing an even larger food base for an even larger coyote population (rodents are the primary food source of coyotes). Kill off the coyotes and the paradoxical result is… more coyotes flood an out-of-balance ecosystem. Second, kill coyotes and the rabbit population explodes. Rabbits, like sheep, eat grass. In fact, six rabbits eat the same amount of grass as one sheep. So when coyotes are killed the available pasture for sheep decreases because of the increased demand for grass by an exploding rabbit population. Counter-productive yes; but the net result is that there are ever more coyotes for Wildlife Services to kill.
The Yellowstone wolf re-introduction project has taught environmental scientists plenty about the importance of predators in the balance of the natural world. Sadly, as in so many other areas of human endeavor, we don’t often let knowledge get in the way of what we want to believe. And many farmers and ranchers believe that without Wildlife Services they would be over run with predators – even though the science says otherwise.
An even more troubling aspect of this slaughter is the carelessness of its authors. The men who kill for Wildlife Services go about their grim task without regard for the other animals their work maims and kills. The “non-target” animals. The non-predators who stumble into their traps and snares. From 2006 to 2011, Wildlife Services admits that its agents also killed about 50,000 “non-target” animals, including 1,100 pet dogs (mostly by trapping and poison, a large number killed while with their owners hiking or camping on public land). The largest number of “non-target” animals killed were raccoons, although, foxes, possums, and hundreds of other species of small mammals – some rare or endangered – and even snapping turtles, were killed. River otters, bears, porcupines. The “accidental kill” list is 350 species long.
In the articles Knudson documents the killing of at least two golden eagles by Wildlife Service in leg-hold traps that were intended for coyotes. In both cases the trappers who killed the eagles were told by supervisors to hide the evidence and never speak about the eagles killed. Killing a golden eagle is, of course, a violation of The Migratory Bird Treaty and the Eagle Protection Act.
It is important to remember that the bulk of the killing of both “targeted” and “non-targeted” species takes place on public lands, sometimes land leased to ranchers at below-market-prices.
Here’s how it works:
Frequently Wildlife Services begins killing predators in an area because a rancher reports a ”problem” animal to their local county agriculture people, who then pass along the complaint to Wildlife Services. Wildlife Services then hires a hunter and/or trappers, who respond by killing all the coyotes in the area. More frequently, however, no complaint is required for Wildlife Services to hunt predators. Sometimes the mere knowledge that coyotes live in an area is reason enough for them to hire a airplane or helicopter, with a pilot and a professional shooter, to find and kill every predator they see from the air. Coyote. Mountain Lions. Bobcats. Sometimes bears. The cost of “aerial gunning,” as it is commonly called, is between $700 and $1,000 an hour.
We don’t know exactly how much of their 30 million dollar annual killing budget goes to aerial shooting because Wildlife Services operates with virtually no oversight, answerable to no one, even though they do much of their work on public land.
The primary “target” species among birds is European starlings, an introduced species that is in fact responsible for much crop damage. But blackbirds, cowbirds, and many other “target” species are killed each year. In fact, there are something like 300 species of birds and mammals “targeted” by Wildlife Services every year. And as with the “non-targeted” mammals, rare and protected birds are killed by the thousands by Wildlife Services‘ indiscriminate killing.
And your tax dollars pay for all of it.
Michael Mares, President of the American Society of Mammalogy, a group which has been opposed to Wildlife Services’ indiscriminate and wasteful slaughter of wildlife, says, “The irony is that state governments and the federal government are spending millions of dollars to preserve species and then… Wildlife Services (is) out there killing the same animals.”
There are remedies. First, it’s time to declare an end this war against American wildlife. Mares suggests that Wildlife Services money would be better spent trying to deal with introduced species, which do greater damage to our ecosystems than the native species they ‘target” (Burmese pythons in the Florida Everglades, for example). Just addressing the serious problem of feral house cats would save something like a million wild birds a year.
Many sheep ranchers already know that electric fencing and guard dogs provide better protection from coyotes than aerial shooting, but Wildlife Services’ killing program costs them nothing. And all those dead animals seem to say that someone is getting their money’s worth, even if Wildlife Services is funded by tax dollars not by the ranchers who’s livestock it was meant to protect. One rancher I knew years ago blamed the war on predators on a lazy government that threw money at a problem that lazy ranchers insisted was worse than it really was. Which is another sad paradox in this sad story. The end of ranching in America is not the solution. Plenty of ranchers that I’ve known over the years have a strong connection to the land, and do, in fact, see themselves as caretakers of the land. Certainly “undeveloped” ranch and farm land is more valuable to America’s wild birds and animals – and to the wild soul of America – than endless acres of strip malls and subdivisions. To insure the future of wildlife and ranching we need to begin to deal with ranching/wildlife conflicts in a way that actually protects both.
Eliminating the wholesale slaughter of American wildlife by Wildlife Services is just the first step.
Because of the Sacramento Bee series, some members of congress have begun to take note of the sickening and wasteful slaughter of American wildlife by this Department of Agriculture agency. Even some “small government” Republicans have begun to question spending tax-payer money for killing millions of birds and animals when it so obviously flies in the face of science and conscience.
Time indeed for a wiser concept of animals.
Thinking New Mexico: A Centennial Exhibition
New Mexico State University Art Gallery
Las Cruces, NM
May 25 – Sept 1, 2012
The blue sky. The deep blue sea. Paul Newmanʼs eyes. Bluebirds.
What these have in common is that none are (or were) blue. The sky, the ocean, blue irises in humans, and all blue bird feathers are, in fact, colorless. They appear blue because their physical structures alter light, making the blue end of the light spectrum visible, while absorbing or diffusing the other colors of light. Scientists call this ʻstructural color.ʻ
“Colors are the deeds and sufferings of light.”
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
If you remember high school science you remember that the visible light spectrum appears to us as white light, although itʼs actually composed of many wavelengths, frequencies, and energy levels, each one producing a different color of light. A prism – or water droplets in the case of a rainbow – breaks down light into itʼs many visible wavelengths.
As light – sunlight – passes through our atmosphere the blue wavelengths gets bounced around by the the molecules of oxygen and nitrogen, while the other colors of light, because of their different frequencies and wavelengths, pass through the atmosphere relatively undisturbed. The diffused blue light in the atmosphere is visible to our eyes, while the unscattered wavelengths remain invisible. The result: our colorless atmosphere appears blue. Scientists call this Rayleigh Scattering. Rayleigh scattering by water molecules is slightly different from the scattering by atmospheric gas molecules. Water, like the atmosphere, is colorless, but itʼs an excellent light ﬁlter, letting blue light waves penetrate and scatter, while the other wavelengths are simply absorbed without scattering. We see the scattered blue and not the absorbed wavelengths, so we see a blue ocean. Add the reﬂection of a clear blue sky and a white sand ocean ﬂoor, and you have the impossibly blue water of the Caribbean.
A person with brown or black irises has the pigment melanin in their iris. Without melanin, irises are colorless. However, they act, molecularly, something like the atmosphere; the red spectrum wavelengths penetrate to the back of the iris (where they are absorbed), while the blue wavelengths are scattered and reﬂected back. Someone with just a little bit of melanin in their irises has grey or green eyes, depending on the pigmentation of the melanin and amount.
And ﬁnally, bluebird feathers. Like water molecules, bird feathers appear blue because their cell structure absorbs the other wavelengths of light and reﬂect and scatter the blue. Different species of birds with blue feathers evolved with slightly different feather cell structures, producing different shades of blue. Also, like the human iris, some blue feathers contain small amounts of pigment – which is why a bluebird and a blue jay arenʼt the same color of blue.
The blue paint in a painting, and blueberries, on the other hand, are actually blue. Both contain blue pigment – although that doesnʼt make their color any less mysterious.
This blue planet we share is an amazing place to call home.
At The Ojo Caliente Hot Springs, Resort, and Spa, in Ojo Caliente, New Mexico, you will encounter signs which read: “Whisper Please.”
Iʼve whispered “Please” every time Iʼve seen one of those signs, but nothingʼs ever happened.
The bird on this page is a peregrine falcon. Once commonly called duck hawks, peregrines are not only the fastest of all birds, they are the fastest living things on earth. In a stoop – the name ornithologists use for a hawkʼs dive for prey – peregrine falcons have been clocked at over 200 miles per hour.
Peregrine populations worldwide, including in the United States, were decimated by the widespread use of DDT. After the ban of DDT as an agricultural pesticide in 1972 and the passing of the Endangered Species Act the following year, American peregrine populations began to make a slow recovery, and in 1999 they were removed from the list of endangered and threatened species. There are now thought to be between 2,500 and 3,500 breeding pairs in the United states.
This peregrine was photographed at the opening for a solo show I had last year at Shiprock Gallery in Santa Fe. The title of the show was ʻBoth Man and Bird and Beast,ʼ taken from the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
“He prayeth well who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.”
Because I had used bird imagery in much of the work for the show, the gallery and I invited the The Wildlife Center, a non-proﬁt organization in Espanola, New Mexico dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of injured wildlife to come to the opening with some of their “teaching birds.” Not only did they bring the peregrine, but also a Swainsonʼs hawk, a ﬂammulated owl, a great horned owl, and a turkey vulture named Sol. Although these are the ʻrock starsʼ of The Wildlife Center, their appearance at something like my opening comes at a high price. Severe injuries have left these birds incapable of ever again surviving in their natural habitat, so they will remain at The Center for the remainder of their lives, a poignant reminder of what we have and can so easily lose.
Itʼs difﬁcult to imagine how many birds once ﬁlled the sky over North America. In 1813 John James Audubon saw a ﬂock of passenger pigeons in the sky over Kentucky that was ﬁfty miles wide and took three days to pass. Alexander Wilson, considered the father of American ornithology, saw a ﬂock of passenger pigeons a few years earlier that he estimated at 2 billion birds. Although passenger pigeons were undoubtedly the largest population of all species of birds in North America, other species were spectacularly numerous in the early days of our country. Audubon once climbed inside a hollow sycamore tree and counted 5 thousand swallows nesting there.
In 19th century America people commonly ate almost every species of wild bird. Song birds of every description, generically called larks, were trapped, snared, and shot by the millions and ended up on every table and in every meat market in America. In the markets and food stalls of New Orleans, Audubon found not only ducks, geese, and swans for sale, but also owls, robins, and blackbirds. “Four and twenty blackbirds baked into a pie” was not only childrenʼs rhyme, it was a recipe.
By the late 1800s the birds of North America were in trouble. Hunting for food and feathers (for womenʼs hats primarily) had so decimated populations that many species, including the passenger pigeon, were threatened with extinction.
In 1890 a group of earnest bird lovers – concerned by the lack of birds in New York Cityʼs Central Park – imported 80 European starlings. Starling were to be the ﬁrst of many species the group planned to import – their goal was to bring to America every bird species mentioned in the plays of Shakespeare.
Starlings, it would seem, have a ﬁne sense of irony; the ﬁrst pair of starlings to leave Central Park nested under the eaves of the Museum of Natural History. Fifty years later they had spread across America and the passenger pigeon and several other native birds were extinct.
Several years ago, Erica and I started an independent ﬁlm company called pieboy ﬁlms. Our ﬁrst project was a short ﬁlm called “The Lark Snare,” about a Civil War soldierʼs encounter with a woman waiting for her husband to return after the warʼs end. (You can watch a clip from the ﬁlm on the ʻOther Projectsʼ page of this site.) The ﬁlm begins with the woman setting a bird snare in the early morning. The snare we used as a prop for ﬁlming was actually a copy of a period 19th century lark snare that a friend had found in an antique shop in North Carolina. The original had horsehair loops tied to a string grid inside a wooden frame. When a bird landed to eat the bread used to bait the trap, its feet became entangled in the horsehair loops. The more it fought the snare, the tighter the slipknots became.
Later in the story, while the soldier sleeps on her porch, the woman returns to the snare and ﬁnds she had caught a bird. But this presented a problem for us. Using a real migratory bird for the scene required a permit that, for a variety of reasons, we could not get in time for ﬁlming. (Possession of any migratory bird, alive or dead, without a permit, is a violation of federal law.)
So we turned to The Wildlife Center.
As it turns out, they had an immature starling which had been brought in injured and then died. Starlings, because they were imported and are not native, are not protected under American bird laws, so we could use The Wildlife Centerʼs immature starling as a ʻstunt doubleʼ lark. However, wanting to include certiﬁcation by the American Humane Association that no animals were harmed in the making of “The Lark Snare,” we had to provide documentation that the starling had, in fact, been dead when we received it. On the day we shot the bird-in-the-snare scene, an agent from the American Humane Association came to the set, veriﬁed the source of our stunt-double bird, and watched us ﬁlm. And we got our Humane Association certiﬁcation.
And what of pie?
While researching in preparation for writing the story, I talked to several veterans, and in the process, found an interesting dichotomy. A few wanted to talk about nothing but their war experience, but most wanted to talk about anything but their war experience. So I wrote the character of the soldier in The Lark Snare as the latter: the war is over for him, so what he really wants to talk about is peace – home, the circus, and especially, pie. Not blackbird pie, but cherry pie, or apple, or maybe berry pie, and always without ice cream.
If you watch the clip on the ʻOther Projectsʼ page youʼll see a little bit of the circus conversation. My wife Erica baked the cherry pie you see brieﬂy in that scene.
Because we needed a fresh pie for each take, she made four. They were great pies. Turns out, she has a few pie secrets of her own.
And ﬁnally, I should point out that the birds of America are still in trouble. Shot by the millions every year for market in the past, today they are threatened by loss of habitat, house cats, wind generators, and cell phone towers. Will history judge us less harshly than we judge the market hunters of the past, because we let the birds die for our convenience, instead of for food?
Peregrine Falcon at Opening of 'Both Man and Bird and Beast'